Search This Site
Et cetera :: Normandy Institute: VS teacher, student chosen for unique workshop in France
· 10:50am January 23rd, 2013
Riley Ries said his eighth and ninth grade history teachers – Alex Vasquez and Kelly Steffen – have had such a great impact on him that already as a high school sophomore he knows that he wants to become a history teacher.
Now, he hopes that a trip to one of the world’s most iconic, historic battlegrounds will make him a better teacher.
Riley, the son of Paul and Karilea Ries of rural Vinton, is traveling to Washington, D.C., and then to Normandy and the historic battlefields, memorials and cemeteries of northern France in June. He will accompany Vinton-Shellsburg High School teacher Kelly Steffen, who chose to invite Riley.
Mrs. Steffen usually tries to attend workshops during the summer, but she found in the Normandy Institute a program that offered two unique opportunities: A trip to France, as well as the opportunity for students to participate.
Most workshops, says Mrs. Steffen, are for teachers only.
Choosing Riley was an easy decision, says the teacher. She had to choose a current sophomore, and someone who would be free in the summer.
Riley’s interest in being a teacher and his love of World War II history in particular made him the clear choice for this trip.
“Riley soaks this stuff up – he’s like a sponge,” says Mrs. Steffen. I also had to select someone who I knew would do the work, and I know he will. Also, because he wants to become a history teacher, what he learns this summer will trickle down to his future students.”
Mr. Vasquez remembers Riley as an extremely interested, devoted history student who made sure that what he heard from the teacher was accurate.
“I remember that he was always the first student into the room and last to leave,” says Mr. Vasquez. “He always made sure his notes were detailed and he would even check from time to time to make sure that what I taught was correct, which is actually a very great thing for a student to do – independently verify information – and he always participated in class. He is a wonderful, intelligent young man and while he will make an excellent history teacher. I am sure that his destiny will involve something even greater. I am honored and humbled that he views me as an inspiration. He will represent V-S, Iowa and the U.S.very well on the trip!”
And there will be a lot of work – approximately 10 hours per week for both the teacher and student from now until June. Each is required to read seven books including “Band of Brothers,” and to prepare educational presentations. Mrs. Steffen expects to share some of the lessons from this project during the annual school Veterans Day assembly in November.
The National History Day organization is paying for the trip, and air fare from DC to France. The only expense for Mrs. Steffen and Riley would be their air fare to DC. – and a passport for Riley, who has never traveled outside the country. The two will be speaking to veterans organizations and perhaps asking for some financial assistance from them.
Fifteen student-teacher pairs were chosen for this event, out of 200 applicants. Participants will spend five days in Washington, D.C., touring monuments and attending workshop sessions, before leaving for France. There they will spend seven days visiting Normandy and other World War II landmarks.
“Normandy is the thing I want to see most. I want to see Omaha Beach. I love Normandy so much because that’s where the allies got their foothold in Europe,” says Riley.
Both the student and teacher are thankful for the opportunity, and realize that not many people have the means or opportunity to travel to these historic places.
Many people helped Mrs. Steffen and Riley throughout the application process. Principal Matt Kingsbury wrote a letter of recommendation. Staff members helped proofread essays and other information the two had to submit. Riley’s language teachers and his cousin Kelby Robb spent several hours helping him, says Riley.
Riley wrote in his essay that standing on Normandy would help him bring to life that part of history for his future students. Below is Riley’s essay:
Standing on the sands of the Beach, feeling the same sand beneath my feet that my predecessors did, watching as the tide rolls slowly to the shore. The opportunity to attend the National History Day’s study of the D-Day is one that comes along once in a lifetime. It is an experience that I would never forget. Being able to stand at the site of the battle that was the turning point of World War II is one of the most exhilarating adventures that a future teacher could embark upon.
My goal is to be a high school history teacher. But I aspire to be more than just the average educator. More than anything, I want to inspire my students as my teachers have inspired me.
Before meeting my eighth grade history teacher, history was just a topic I enjoyed, especially World War II. But he made it come to life for me by coming to school dressed as a Civil War Era Union soldier or presenting to the class his replica colonial and Civil War firearms. Taking his class made me truly love the subject. I will always be grateful for the teachers I have been able to work with at Vinton-Shellsburg. I hope someday I can show them my gratitude, by being as much of an inspiration to my students as they have been to me.
When my freshman history teacher informed me of this provocative opportunity to visit Normandy Beach, I knew I was the perfect student for it. Passionate, deserving and responsible; I would benefit immensely from this experience and use it to help others learn.
When I become a history teacher, this experience will allow me to better bring to life D-Day and World War II for my students, to better give them an understanding of the events and to better help the grow a passion for history.
If a student becomes interested in a lesson, then that individual wants to become more involved in class. If students contribute to classroom discussion and research a topic because they enjoy it, then all my hard work in lesson planning and PowerPoints and obtaining knowledge of the subject is worth it; the learning becomes theirs. As a teacher, my job is to inspire that passion and the trip to Normandy will give me the tools to do that.
When I return, I would also enjoy the opportunity to share my experiences with my fellow Vinton-Shellsburg classmates. I want to show my 600 fellow Vikings how horrible war is and how it robs a young person of his/her hopes and dreams. It takes a brave soul from his/her friends and family, leaving a gaping hole in the hearts of those people. I would really love the opportunity to honor those who fought at Normandy and died defending their country at the Veterans’ Day memorial presentation by sharing my first hand experiences.
I will be able to learn more from this experience with National History Day than I ever could from sitting in a classroom. Experiencing these historical locations firsthand and interacting with the notable scholars of National History Day would be priceless to a future history teacher. I believe that this superb opportunity to go on the National History Day excursion to Washington D.C. and Normandy will make me a better teacher, better able to explain these important events to my students.
Below is the essay Mrs. Steffen wrote with her application for the project, along with her reasons for choosing Riley for the trip:
Opportunity. This word carries a tremendous amount of potential. However, not all people are willing to embrace its potential or recognize the power of past opportunities. On the other hand, there are those who embrace and seek out opportunities as a tool of growth. I have been fortunate enough to pursue a career that delivers opportunities on a daily basis. But those daily experiences aren’t enough for my students. My goal is to expand the number of prospects my students (and myself) can have. The Normandy Institute: Sacrifice for Freedom is an amazing opportunity! The purpose of the institute aligns with my philosophy as a history teacher; to be an engaged learner, an innovator, and a facilitator. And when it comes to content, I must fuel my passion and expand my learning.
As I gathered information about the Normandy Institute, I was excited to see all the physical ways participants would interact with the history of Normandy and the memorials of WashingtonD.C.. This form of interaction, between the scholarly research and physical markers, is by far the most powerful combination for learners. My student, Riley, who shares a passion for history, could not believe that a group would be willing to invest so much into his learning! Both of us realize what an honor and responsibility it would be to take part in the Normandy Institute.
David McCullough recently spoke about the significance of “being in the space” where history took place. Gazing at the cliffs of Normandy, walking among the grains of sand on the beaches, and hearing the waves of the water grants us an enriched perspective. Teaching from a textbook for a history teacher is like a science teacher who never demonstrates experiments. Luckily, I have taken part in a few National Endowment for the Humanities Landmark workshops where history has been made. History comes alive for my students when I say, I too, have walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, or strolled up the same high school steps as the Little Rock Nine, and cried in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. I am still in awe that I met two of the Little Rock Nine! In 2007, I was invited to be part of the Presidential Academy as the Iowa Representative. Our first week was spent absorbing the historical sights of Philadelphia. Next, in Gettysburg, we hiked to the battlefield in the early morning. Through the fog I saw my first battlefield. The textbooks and movies are an injustice to that landmark. My students now have a
more enlightened perspective of the terrain based on my experiences. I returned home on a tremendous high and could not wait to share the valuable primary sources I had attained, as well as the ideas of incorporation into my classroom.
Innovation is essential when it comes to working with high school students. A history teacher has to constantly demonstrate the relevance of the past while maintaining the integrity of the subject. Using the materials from previous historical workshops, I have guided students to use primary sources to create digital story telling, debates, simulations, gallery walks, websites, to document oral histories, to write research and persuasive essays, and to analyze historical sources. In our community, I am one of the lead people for our Veterans Day Assembly. My classroom hosts Veterans and we feature those veterans from WWII to the present. In order to get a better understanding of the training some of our local veterans endure, last year I participated in the Marines Educator workshop. For a week, I had the opportunity to see boot camp up close. What an experience!
The vision my student, Riley and I have, is to take what we have learned from the Normandy Institute and create a tribute for our district wide assembly (approximately 2000 students and community members) showcasing one of our local veterans who served in Normandy. Riley will lead a group of students in creating a visual display that will enlighten our audience about the importance of Normandy and show the connection of our local veteran to the bigger picture. We will also demonstrate our learning to local organizations such as Kiwanis and Lions and Riley will hold a presentation during parent/teacher conferences.
One of the ways a teacher can be successful is through collaboration. Upon returning from any sort of learning, I then seek out my colleagues and share with them the materials I have gained and look to find ways to use these tools in our classes. Our district is in a rural part of Iowa, but we have the opportunities to work with districts from neighboring rural districts, as well as, districts from nearby larger cities. One of the best ways to show my appreciation for these learning opportunities is to share the wealth of my experiences with my colleagues. This share out usually leads to even more innovative ways of disseminating this material with our students.
At all of the workshops I have attended in the past, there is always a point where I say, “I wish my students could experience this.” This is precisely why the Normandy Institute: Sacrifice for Freedom is such a unique opportunity. Now, not only is it possible that I will have the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of some of the bravest men to ever live, now I will see it through the eyes of a student. What a gift of learning! Thank you for your time and consideration.
Kelly J. Steffen
The student who has been selected to accompany me on our exploration of Normandy and the significance of D-Day is a young man, Riley Ries. Riley is a well rounded, intelligent, compassionate, and hard working sophomore. Riley’s grade point average is a 3.92 and he is a part of our gifted and talented program. Riley also participates in our school’s athletics and is a part of our robotics team. However, there were three more important reasons as to why Riley was chosen.
First, Riley loves history and is constantly looking for ways to engage with history. He does not limit his knowledge to just facts, but is also hypothesizing about historic events and trying to empathize with historic characters. Second, Riley is comfortable with working with fellow students. In our high school, teachers consistently comment that Riley is the person who will help his fellow students. In the mornings, Riley took it upon himself to come in and tutor a fellow student in a science class. In my classroom, I would observe Riley explaining a concept to someone sitting next to him. His willingness to help and lead others is crucial upon our return from our journey. Riley wants to lead a group of students in preparing a proper presentation, at our community Veterans Day assembly, about the significance of Normandy and the role our local veteran, Mr. Starr played in this event. I am confident Riley’s presentation will be something our whole community will take pride in. Finally, Riley’s work ethic makes him the type of student that can handle the academic preparation needed for him to gain the most from this experience.
Family donates quilt for raffle during Vikette Breast Cancer Awareness Night
AmeriCorps NCCC FEMA Corps Class 19 Member Spotlight: Jill Jaeger